17 Apr 2013

Working thief claimed £26,000 benefits

A cleaner claimed £25,000 in benefits while working for Premiership footballers who she was stealing from, a court has heard.

Christine French, 57, took £20,000 in jewellery from the wives of Sunderland Striker David Healy and Newcastle goalkeeper Steve Harper, to help pay off debts of £15,000.

She pleaded guilty to three counts of benefit fraud at Newcastle Crown Court where she was yesterday given a 12 month prison sentence suspended for 12 months.

She trembled in the dock as the court was told that she had fraudulently claimed between £100 and £120 a week while cleaning the homes in Ponteland's Darras Hall estate - a favourite among footballers.

Defending her, Susan Hirst said French was 'robbing Peter to try and pay Paul' after her husband of 30 years suddenly left her in a state of financial chaos.

She owed a £10,000 in loans and a further £5,000 in finance.

Newcastle Crown Court heard that when she initially began claiming income support and council tax benefit in September 2003, she was entitled to the payments.

However, after starting work as a cleaner on August 1 2005, she continued to claim the money, which she was no longer entitled to, until she was sacked after the thefts were noticed in late 2010.

James Adkin, prosecuting, said French had fraudulently claimed a total of £25,895 while working as a cleaner and offering an ironing service.

Miss Hirst said that French currently has £10.80 a week deducted from her benefits to re-pay that amount. She said:
All of the offences rose from the financial mess she was in. Her husband of 30 years left her suddenly with a huge amount of debt. Life has been a real struggle for her over the last seven to eight years. She has been struggling with depression since her husband left her. This really has ruined her life.
Judge John Evans said that she would have faced immediate custody if the matters had come to light at the same time as the thefts. She was also given a supervision requirement for six months.

In May 2011 Judge Richard Lowden sentenced French to eight months imprisonment, suspended for two years, with supervision for 12 months, after she pleaded guilty to three charges of theft relating to £20,000 worth of rings, necklaces, bracelets and earrings.

At the hearing for the first offence, the court was told that French had fallen prey to the temptation of the 'wealth she was surrounded by' and pocketed jewellery belonging to the wives of Mr Harper and Mr Healy.

The self employed cleaner sold or pawned the stolen items to help pay off her colossal debts. The court heard French was not only trusted to clean the homes of the families, but would also babysit the Harper's children.

French was confronted and admitted what she had done. Because she owned up so quickly £14,000 worth of jewellery was recovered from pawn shops and jewellers where she had taken them.

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